If ever you needed more reason to believe these are not the Philadelphia 76ers of past playoff failure, the Eastern Conference top seed's playoff-opening win over the Washington Wizards was a convincing case.
Game 1 of the Sixers' first-round series against the eighth-seeded Wizards had all the fixings for another disappointing Philadelphia loss, complete with Joel Embiid's foul trouble and Ben Simmons' scoring woes, but Tobias Harris discovered newfound playoff confidence in the spacing provided by a revamped roster.
Harris' 37 points — 28 of which came in a first half the Sixers trailed by one — were not just a playoff career high. They were a complete reversal from the no-show he made in a first-round loss to the Boston Celtics last season. He shot just 38% from the field and 13% from 3-point range in a disappointing 2020 sweep. Harris made 11 of his first 15 shots against the Wizards and never stopped attacking mismatches.
"I wanted to set the tone early and show what we've been about all year," Harris told the TNT broadcast after Sunday's 125-118 win against a game Wizards team starring Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook.
Playing for his fifth franchise in 10 seasons, the 28-year-old Harris has been on the fringes of All-Stardom in both conferences over the past several years. He was the fourth option on Philadelphia's run to the Eastern Conference finals in 2019, and the Sixers gave him a maximum five-year, $180 million deal that summer, which coincided with Jimmy Butler's exit and instantly put pressure on him to perform as a go-to option.
He was not that last season, lost in lineups that were too often plagued by multiple bigs and poor shooters. That changed this season. The Sixers hired Doc Rivers, the coach who first tapped into Harris' success as a primary option with the underdog Los Angeles Clippers before his trade to Philadelphia in 2019. And his efficiency increased across the board. Harris was a few made 3s and free throws from a 50/40/90 season.
"I don’t think it’s a coincidence," Harris told NBA.com this year. "Coach knows my game, he knows things that I do very well. When we were in L.A., he was the coach who put me in those positions, so he’s doing the same thing here. He’s always pushing me to be better and be decisive on the court, be a leader for our team and be my best self night in and night out. He expects a lot of me and that’s what I want as a player."
The man who hired Rivers, incoming team president Daryl Morey, also revamped the roster around Embiid, Simmons and Harris. Morey spent draft capital to shed Al Horford and Josh Richardson in deals that returned veteran marksmen Danny Green and Seth Curry. Harris might have been shown the exit, too, if his contract wasn't so cumbersome, but the absence of a trade could be interpreted as a vote of confidence.
Green and Curry led the team in 3-point accuracy and volume this season, shooting a combined 42.3% on 11 attempts per game. Compare that to last season, when Horford and Richardson shot a combined 34.6% on nine attempts a night, and there is no calculating the amount of defensive attention drawn away from Harris this season. You can see it in the ease with which he attacks the basket and pulls up from midrange.
It is also not a coincidence Harris' career playoff high came in a game Green and Curry shot a combined 6 for 13 from distance. Confidence and comfort will do wonders to erase past playoff shortcomings. So will experience. It is easy to forget this is only Harris' fourth playoffs, two of which ended in first-round sweeps.
"I’ve been there only X amount of times in my career," Harris, who added six rebounds on Sunday, told reporters after the victory, "but I’ve taken from each playoff experience something that I want to bring."
It is a testament not only to Harris, but the work done around him that Game 1 didn't feel like Groundhog Day with Embiid in foul trouble and Simmons in single digits. Beyond 26 combined points from Green and Curry, Dwight Howard spelled Embiid, and George Hill sparked a stagnant offense off the bench. Those two combined for another 18 points. The Sixers don't need to cross their fingers with Furkan Korkmaz anymore.
Granted, Washington's defense is abysmal. The Wizards have only second-year forward Rui Hachimura to combat Harris' size, strength and athleticism, and that is a mismatch. The Atlanta Hawks and Brooklyn Nets — potential second- and third-round opponents — aren't stout defensively, either. The fact that Harris would even command Kevin Durant's attention on defense is a world of difference in itself for the Sixers.
If the Sixers can get this kind of production out of Harris and company, Embiid and Simmons no longer have excuses of playoffs past. They are not too young, too injured or too burdened by a misfit roster. They have the horses now to win a championship, and they rode them to the first of the 16 necessary victories.
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